This paper shows how regimes of spatial ordering in Brazil are produced by the entangling of neoliberalism, leftist populism and modernist visions. The paper focuses on Prometrópole, a slum upgrading project in Recife funded by the World Bank, which commenced in 2007. In this project, the neoliberal dimension manifests in the idea that the state, private companies and citizens together are responsible for (re)constructing urban space, and further, that beneficiaries should behave as autonomous citizens, taking responsibility for their new living environment. The leftist political dimension is seen in participatory procedures to involve the target population from project design through to implementation, in expectation of their cooperation with the government. The modernist aesthetics – of straight lines, open spaces and visible order – informs the project design with the requirement to use the new houses and public spaces according to the standards of ‘modern civilization’. As our research shows, such a regime of spatial ordering clashes with the livelihoods of the urban poor, whose quality of life might even deteriorate as a result of the intervention. Furthermore, so-called participatory procedures fail to grant the target population any real influence in creating their environment. Consequently, these residents of the new housing estate drastically reconstruct their private and public areas, reappropriating the urban space and contesting the regime of spatial ordering imposed upon them.